The Blob Revisited

A new report by the Educational Research Service challenges the continuing misperceptions about the size and cost of school administration by NANCY PROTHEROE

Since public school administration was first termed the "blob" more than a decade ago, many school reformers have called for radical reductions in the number of administrators. Even some strong supporters of public schools subscribe to the notion that educational staffing is top heavy, with unproductive bureaucrats sponging off financial resources that could be spent in the classroom.

Surely if these views are accurate, action should be taken to correct the situation. But if they are not accurate, do such calls divert attention from more important issues of school improvement?

In an Educational Research Service publication first issued 10 years ago (and updated twice since), we examined several popular perceptions about school administration to determine if they had factual support. Some claims concerned the number of administrators, others related to the cost of administration, and still others raised the more basic question of the need for an administrative structure in school districts.

Justifying Management
Let's start with the most fundamental concern raised by the critics: Is there a need for administrative personnel in education? The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal agency charged with developing profiles of various professions, describes the nature of work for school administrators in its "Occupational Outlook Handbook." Implicit in its description of the nature of school administration is the understanding that good management is essential to effective schools, just as it is to profitable business and industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: "Smooth operation of an educational institution requires competent administrators. Education administrators provide direction, leadership and day-to-day management of educational activities ... Education administrators set educational standards and goals and aid in establishing the policies and procedures to carry them out. They develop academic programs; monitor students' educational progress; train and motivate teachers and other staff; manage guidance and other student services; administer record keeping; prepare budgets; handle relations with parents, prospective students, employers and the community; and perform many other activities. They also supervise managers, management support staff, teachers, counselors, librarians, coaches and others."

Within our current system of education, quality district-level leadership is required to support, augment and coordinate the instructional programs of the various local schools. Good central-office leadership should not be viewed as an unnecessary bureaucracy or a hindrance to effective schools. It is a vital part of an efficient and effective educational system.

In dealing with a related assertion--"There are too many administrators"--the U.S. Department of Education provides important information. During the 1995-96 school year, the total central-office administrative and professional staff comprised just 1.0 percent of the total staff of public school districts nationwide. All principals and assistant principals added only another 2.4 percent to this figure, which was computed by National Center for Education Statistics.

Is it likely that those critics who speak of administrative bloat had anything close to this small percentage in mind? Again, a misperception has fueled unwarranted criticism of education.

The administrators represented by these fairly small percentages also supervise more people than managers in other industries. Using data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ERS calculated the ratio of nonsupervisory employees to each executive, administrator or manager for several industries, including education.

In elementary and secondary schools, there are 13.5 staff members per executive or administrator--the highest number of any of the 10 industries examined. Only hospitals report roughly similar staffing patterns, 12.6 people supervised per executive or administrator. Compare this to the ratio for all manufacturing industries (6.2 to 1) and for public administration (3.5 to 1).

Administrative Costs
The cost of school administration and its effect on the resources available for instruction have been the subject of countless speeches and op-ed articles and talk radio since then-Secretary of Education William Bennett first applied the "blob" description to administration more then 10 years ago. Today, even staunch supporters of public education sometimes rely on the same misperceptions.

Consider this statement by Vice President Al Gore to the California legislature in 1997: "We should be spending public funds on teachers and children, not on excessive overhead and bloated bureaucracy and unnecessary layers of middle management. So it is time for parents and others to start asking pointed questions: How much of the money in the school where your children attend classes is going to teachers and for books and for other things that are actually in your child's classroom? How much, instead, is going to bureaucracy that is unnecessary, to overhead costs that have grown completely out of control, to redundant layers of unnecessary layers of administration? And how exactly does all of that spending contribute to the education of your child?"

Do the facts support the contention that considerable money now spent on administration could be channeled more productively to instruction? And have increasing portions of school budgets been shifted from instruction to administration?

Many of the misconceptions about school funding result from a lack of understanding of the complex issues involved. Schools are criticized for increased spending, with much of the public expecting proportionate increases in student achievement levels. However, much of the increase is driven by inflation and increases in enrollment. In addition, court decisions, federal and state legislation and public demand for services that expand what schools are expected to do adding to the funding needs of education.

Another aspect of school expenditures often portrayed inaccurately is the pattern of school expenditures over time, with much of the public mistakenly believing that money is being shifted from instruction to pay administrative costs. A 1986 report by the influential Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy contended that funds could be shifted from administration to instruction and asserted that "large central-office bureaucracies have ... managed to capture a growing share of local resources." Since public support for schools can be eroded by the belief that money is being spent inappropriately and inefficiently, it is extremely important that the available data on the cost of education be analyzed with care and precision.

If we examine the data compiled by ERS though a national survey of school district budgets, one can readily see that over the past 15 years the average percent of school district budgets allocated for administration has declined slightly, from 4.8 to 4.5 percent. At the same time, the percent allocated to instruction has increased from 63.3 to 69.8 percent. Clearly, administration has not been gaining financially at the expense of instruction.

In two other studies of school costs over time (from 1967 to 1991 and from 1991 to 1996), the expenditure patterns of nine school districts were examined in detail. The studies asked, "Where's the money gone?" in reviewing the new money made available to education over those periods.

While concluding that much of the new money was allocated to instructional programs, particularly those serving students in special education, researcher Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute also found that the percentage allocated to what he termed "overhead" for general and school administration changed very little over the 30-year period, from 9.8 to 10.1 percent.

Spending Patterns
A more detailed review of the current status of school district budgets provides additional helpful information. Only 4.5 percent of the typical school district's budget is allocated for central-office administration and school board services, such as legal counsel and school census. Almost 70 percent is allocated to instructional services, with an additional 5.6 percent to instructional leadership activities (the offices of principals and assistant principals) and another 7.4 percent to student services, such as health and attendance and transportation.

On the assumption that large proportions of school district budgets are going to administrative overhead, some have proposed that money be diverted from central-office administration to such instructional items as increases in teacher salaries or reductions in class size. However, when we analyze the budget item for central-office administration even more closely, we find less than half--just 1.8 percent--pays for the salaries of central-office administrative and professional personnel.

If the typical school district were to eliminate the salaries of all central-office administrative and professional staff and then apply the funds to teacher salaries, this drastic action would raise the average salaries of the district's teachers by only 5 percent. In a similar way, if the typical district were to eliminate the salaries of all central-office administrators and professionals and reallocate the funds to employ additional teachers to reduce class size, this drastic action would amount to a reduction of only one pupil per class.

Over a five-year period, the Finance Center of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education conducted studies of education income and expenditures. One aspect of the study, reported by school finance authority Allan Odden and colleagues in the October 1995 issue of Kappan, yielded important points about the implications of shifting funds away from school administration.

The data revealed that average administrative expenditures in education generally do not support the theory of the administrative blob. "Expenditures on administration tend to be modest by comparison to benchmarks for other organizations ... Further, the percentages spent on administration in [some] districts is so low that, if the value added by central-office services was deemed 'not worth it' and the central office was eliminated, there would be very little money to disperse to school sites."

Moreover, the study pointed out that since many central-office functions, such as fiscal services, transportation coordination and personnel administration, still need to be performed at some level, eliminating central offices entirely would not allow a district to use all central-office administrative dollars for other purposes. "In short," the study concluded, "our research has found little empirical support for the theory of the educational administrative blob."

In addition to overestimating the possible financial impact that reductions in administration could have on the typical school district's budget, most proposals to shift resources away from administration have been made without consideration of pertinent financial data or how an enterprise as large and important as public education could function effectively without an adequate, well-trained and efficient management staff.

Accurate Portrayals
Unfortunately, these popular assertions about school administration have become a central part of what the public believes about schools. Such misperceptions divert attention from significant educational issues. School leaders have an obligation to combat these myths with facts.

Meaningful improvement of our schools depends on the accurate identification of real and important problems affecting student learning and the proper application of our knowledge and resources in addressing these problems. We will take a significant step in the right direction if we can move away from the unfounded belief that the size of school administration is one of the major barriers to improving education.

Nancy Protheroe is the director of research at the Educational Research Service, 2100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: nprotheroe@ers.org. She is the author of the newly released "School Administration Under Attack: What Are the Facts?" published by ERS.

Additional Resources
Nancy Protheroe, director of research at the Educational Research Service, suggests the following sources of additional information:
  • "The Story of the Education Dollar: No Academy Awards and No Fiscal Smoking Guns," Kappan, October 1995, available from Phi Delta Kappa, 800-766-1156
  • How Money Matters to School Performance: Four Points Policymakers Should Know, by Susan Mosburg, available from Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 101 S.W. Main St., Suite 500, Portland, Ore. 97204; 800-547-6339 or www.nwrel.org
  • Where's the Money Going? by Richard Rothstein, available from Economic Policy Institute, 1660 L St., N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, D.C. 20036; 800-374-4844 or www.epinet.org
  • National Survey of School District Budgets, contact Educational Research Service, 2000 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209; 703-243-2100, 800-791-9308 or www.ers.org
Six Misperceptions About Administration
The Educational Research Service dispels six popular assertions in its latest report, "School Administration Under Attack: What Are the Facts?"

The 38-page report challenges these six misperceptions:
  • No. 1: Administration is an unnecessary burden on the schools and should be curtailed.
  • No. 2: There are too many administrators.
  • No. 3: The number of administrators is growing rapidly and at the expense of instruction.
  • No. 4: School administrators are being paid too much.
  • No. 5: Increasing amounts of school budgets are going to administration.
  • No. 6: A lot of money is spent on administration that could be better spent for other purposes.

Copies of the report may be ordered from ERS, 2000 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209, or by calling 800-791-9308 or 703-243-2100.